Travel: a mid-Byzantine mystery on Kefalonia

5 mins read

Sami Redux

…I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
W B Yeats, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (1928)

The mid-Byzantine remodelling of the acropolis made us of the existing masonry. Here medieval additions can be seen on top of an earlier archaic wall.

The arrival of a parcel from Amazon awakens memories of magical summer days last year. Inside is Brian and Eileen Anderson’s Walk and Eat Kefaloniá, an evocative pocket guide to this Ionian island. As I flick through it, two pleasing thoughts occupy my mind. The first is arriving on the island – because travelling at its best engenders indelible memories, especially sailing in the Mediterranean. The second recollection is a morning spent challenging in my head one of my dearest, much-missed friends, and reinterpreting a great archaeological site pinpointed along the Andersons’ Walk 7.

Sailing to Byzantium

The Hellenistic acropolis walls at Sami encircle a gently rising hilltop with a glorious view towards Ithaka.

Most everyone is gathered in the bow of the ferry, serenely expectant, as the vessel ploughs through the still Ionian waters towards Poros. The little port is lost in dark shadow, but higher up the outline of the mountains are sharply defined as the last rays of the setting sun leach away beyond. On our right, Ithaka is still illuminated by shafts of late sunlight that have somehow threaded their way through Kefalonia. I want to recite Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (1928), because my intention is to revisit the fortress – Paleókastro – above Sami and look again at its 11th-century phase. The visit was prefaced by rereading the Sami survey made by my much-missed friend, Klavs Randsborg – then, by happenstance, seeing this wonderful place centre-screen in the opening moments of John Madden’s film, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001). On celluloid, it is ravishing; in reality, it is close to Yeats’s celestial vision.

The east gate at Sami shares some features with Butrint’s Scaean Gate, though it has been refurbished with small mortared stones to strengthen the structure.

Yeats regarded Byzantium as the centre of civilisation in a world controlled by barbarians. Its artistic culture proffered solutions in the Dark Ages. There is no doubting the genius of mid-Byzantine art in Istanbul itself, or in the little churches of rural Corfu (visit the Byzantine Museum in Corfu’s Old Fortress) or in metropolitan Kastoria in northern Greece, or even outside the Commonwealth in Santa Maria Antiqua in early 8th-century Rome. Vivid portrait painting and brilliant colours stick in one’s mind long after the full-frontal images themselves. But while Byzantine chroniclers set out to champion a superiority inherited from the Greeks, modern archaeology brings us back to earth. Take the 9th-century renewal of the Mycenaean and Roman fortress on Aegina, where the mid-Byzantine secular architecture was expedient and far from anything Yeats in his Irish fastness might have imagined.

The same is true of Butrint, as it was re-envisioned in the late 10th century as an Epirote port town. The urban architect had serious resources at his disposal. New walls were erected around the acropolis and its administrator’s residence, as well as around the lower city. Next, the architect added deep terracing across the lower city to combat the high winter water table. Lastly, gravel roads, rows of stone-and-timber dwellings, a refurbished cathedral, and tiny private chapels were added to the townscape, complemented by long property boundaries made of robbed Hellenistic masonry. Ambitious in scope, this new 11th-century Butrint was anything but elegant. Its purpose was undoubtedly to put fresh energy into Ionian commerce and help build Byzantine maritime capacity in the lower Adriatic Sea region.

Was Butrint the norm, a benchmark for the revival of Western Byzantium in all its pragmatic gestures, or an exception? Rogoi, the Hellenistic fortress near Arta close to the north shore of the Ambracian Gulf, appears to have been revived in much the same way, but the thick woodland canopy obfuscates the story. Hence my interest in Sami, today a largely bare hilltop, one of the fortresses belonging to the obdurate Byzantine provincial Kefalonians. Klavs, in his published report on the Hellenistic fortress, tersely defined its final use as follows: ‘Phase 6 (Late Byzantine/Norman). In the Byzantine, or, rather, post-Byzantine or Norman period, the Acropolis was reused and partly rebuilt.’ My challenge was to nail down this history more closely, as I will explain.

The Hellenistic Scaean Gate at Butrint, Albania, under excavation in the 1930s.

Islands require maritime skill and these sailors possess it in spades. The efficiency of our ferrymen is a work of wonder. If the Greek government was half as skilled, would the country be plagued by austerity? The huge vessel halts, pivots, reverses, and – with its engines throbbing and shuddering to hold its speed – eases across the dark waters contained by a high mole towards Poros’s anonymous flat dock. In a matter of minutes, the seamen hector us to accelerate off, landing in a confusion of cars and welcoming friends and family, while a policeman whistles pointlessly for order. The release is infectious. Even as we adjust to the dockside twilight, the ferry reverses out. To affirm its place in our lives, the captain blasts a long raucous hoot, and, before we’ve taken the turn up the hill beyond Poros, the boat is accelerating back towards the mainland.

Sami: an aphrodisiac

A published excavation or survey monograph is treasure. So very few see the light of day, in no small part because in the arcane detail lie countless opportunities to explore and question an author’s narrative. Some archaeologists revel in being challenged; some are intimidated by the prospect of reinterpretation. I know where I stand, ever thrilled when I am compelled to rethink my ideas. Deconstructing reports by others, knowing the amount of disciplined work involved, for me is the ultimate act of professional homage.

Klavs’ survey of the acropolis annotated with my working notes. I am sure he would have called me a barmy Brit.

After reading and wrestling with the report comes the pilgrimage. As often as not, I visit the place to make sense of a narrative at the scene of the dig or survey – to ground-truth it, as the contemporary satellite-led generation describe it. Ground-truthing earthworks in an English landscape or fields of Mediterranean ruins is as close as it comes for this archaeologist to an aphrodisiac.

That is what has brought me back to Sami, the port midway up the eastern coast of Kefalonia. It has pride of place in Klavs Randsborg’s two-volume report on his survey of Kefalonia. The ancient city was one of four on the island belonging to the Kefalonian Tetrapolis, flourishing between the Classical Greek and Hellenistic eras. Each was a cyclopean masterpiece.

Sami’s heyday came to a cataclysmic end in 188 BC. That year, the Roman consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior besieged it and, after four months, vanquished its defenders. At Sami, Klavs and his students found the physical elements of this epic story – pinpointing the rise and fall of this great centre on the high ground, the steep slopes, and the gardens and fields above the modern port. Below, in the wide placid bay, ferries dock alongside yachts, and smaller ferries ply the straits to Ithaka, grumbling the whole way to the Odyssey’s dark island. Sami has never been goosed up in any way, and therein lies its charm. Beneath its unaffected streets and houses lie the legacy of Marcus Fulvius Nobilior – a bijou Roman port. This Sami, as I have pointed out before, is an appetiser. Above, the so-called ‘acropolis’, home of the Tetrapolis city, is the seat of my wintry daydreaming. From here is a breathtaking view of the myriad shades of blue separating Kefalonia and Ithaka, hence its coming to be in the opening scene of the film of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The overused word ‘magical’ is, in this case, absolutely accurate.

All images: R Hodges

This is an extract from the full article featured in issue 90 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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